From the “New Scandinavia” of Minnesota across to the Original One

The good life in Minnesota. Fishing on Lake Calhoun, less than four miles from downtown Minneapolis.

On Friday the 28th, I flew north to Minneapolis to see Jack in his new quarters – earlier in May he began studying for a M.A. in substance-abuse counseling at Hazelden, a renowned treatment center north of the Twin Cities (and well known to me through my years there). Linda was flying up the next day. Waiting to climb on the Silver Bird, I had a wonderful, 10-minute T-t-S with an older women, a former nun in the order of Bernardine-Franciscan, headed to Reading, Pennsylvania for the 50th reunion of her “class.” She left the sisterhood 26 years earlier; I remarked that it was quite enlightened for them still to invite her, and she agreed. Her vocational role remained, as a teacher and librarian at St. Monica’s parish in Dallas. We yakked a lot about the joy of teaching. It was a splendid moment.

Pleasant public space in a second-loor Skyway in downtown Minneapolis. These bridges crisscross the core, keeping folks warm and dry in winter, and cool in summer.

Jack had complained about the cold temperatures, and looking down on northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, I could see it was a chilly and late spring. The fields were mostly still brown, but holding the promise of abundance. Landed at 12:45, picked up a Hertz car, and drove to see some old friends in downtown Minneapolis who had just launched a business, then ambled over to see longtime friend Mike Davis, now the Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court. I expected him to be in court or deep in work, but he was free, so he showed me around his new, huge chambers, filled with art and mementos. A framed quotation from former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, like Mike an African-American jurist, caught my eye:

The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all.

After the tour, and a nice visit with one of his clerks, Mike and I repaired to the garden of the Black Forest Inn for a beer and a good yak.

An hour later I was on the deck of friend Steve Elkins’ house in suburban Bloomington, for a very fast chat – he’s running for state senate, and was headed out door-knocking at 6:15. That’s what they call “retail politics,” and Steve said it was the only way her was going to win the race. He has served on the Bloomington City Council for nine years, and has a keen grasp of local and state issues. It was fascinating to spend a couple hours with two informed, articulate, and committed public service, as a counterbalance to the media bombardment about elected and appointed officials’ corruption and incompetence. Truly the best of Minnesota.

I drove a mile from Steve’s to friend and former boss Chuck Wiser’s townhouse, where I have stayed many times through the years. Chuck was out of town, which was too bad, because I had not seen him in quite a while (he was my boss in my first real job, from 1969 to 1974). I worked my e-mail, and headed out for dinner. I found a strip-mall Indian restaurant online, with good reviews from Indians, so headed over to W. 98th Street for a wonderful vegetarian repast, plenty spicy. Was asleep by ten.

Morning still life

Up before six on Saturday morning, pumped up the tires of Chuck’s unused bike, and headed north, through Edina and southwest Minneapolis, around lakes Harriet and Calhoun, and back, stopping at the wonderful Wuollet Bakery for a Danish and a pint of Land O’Lakes skim milk, an outstanding breakfast. Along the way, I also paused at 5000 Arden Avenue, one of my childhood homes, which, Kerblam blew up in February (natural gas leak). The house was no more. Whoa!

Site of my childhood home, 5000 Arden Ave., Edina.

Before picking up Linda, I stopped at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery for prayers above my dad’s grave. As I have many times before, I cast my eyes across the rows and rows of white markers and gave thanks for all their sacrifices. There I was, a free man, thanks to all their giving. At ten, Linda and I headed to downtown Minneapolis, checked in at the Hyatt, and motored 50 miles northeast to Hazelden and its Graduate School of Addiction Studies, where Jack recently enrolled. First stop was his room on the second floor of a new farmhouse, one of six bedrooms rented to Hazelden students.

Water tower, Lindstrom, Minnesota

Second stop was lunch at the Dairy Queen in Lindstrom. That part of Minnesota, in Chisago County, was the first area settled by Swedes in the first wave of immigration in the 1850s, and there a both genuine and kitschy signs of their long presence – not to mention a lot of pure Swedes.

After lunch we got a shortened tour of the treatment center and school (because of privacy issues, movement was a bit restricted, but we got the flavor of the place, met a couple of Jack’s fellow students, and had a good catch up with our son, who has really liked his first month of school. Just before four, we drove east into Wisconsin, to Edward and Karel Moersfelder’s house. Regular readers know I visit the yellow farmhouse atop Windy Hill every year, but Linda and Jack had never been there. We had a lovely chat and a wonderful dinner (Ed roasted a huge local chicken on the spit). I was not excited about a 65-mile drive back to the hotel, but it worked out fine. Jack needed a dose of city life, so he came along, billeted on a cot in our room.

Sunday morning saw Jack and me motoring around downtown Minneapolis, then a good tour of my University of Minnesota, one of those special places that so improved my life. He snapped a few pictures, we headed back to the hotel to pick up Linda, and drove to Edina (my hometown) for lunch with Linda’s mom and siblings Gordy and Julie. We had not seen them in awhile, and enjoyed the meal and yak. Then it was over to Southdale (the first indoor mall in the U.S.) and another couple of stores, then a tour of neighborhoods south and west of downtown Minneapolis. Back to the hotel to chill.

Then big fun started: we walked a few blocks to Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins. I last saw outdoor baseball in September 1981, the last game in the old Metropolitan Stadium, demolished when the Metrodome opened the following year.

The scene from left field, Target Field

No one liked indoor baseball, and the Twin Cities were really pumped about the new facility. There were a lot of good reasons for not building it with public money, but it has further catalyzed redevelopment downtown, and on a cool, breezy evening there was no better place to be than section 230 in left field, peanuts popping into our mouths, and loud cheers for the hometown team (which bested the Texas Rangers 6-3). Only bummer were the seriously drunk fans next to us; people in Minnesota drink a lot, and these people were out of control. Sigh.

I got up early on Memorial Day and motored around a bit, snapping some pictures, and admiring recent city planning – Minneapolis has done some really smart things, like residential development on former industrial districts adjacent to the center. Picked up Linda, drove to the airport, and flew home. A really swell weekend.

The Mississippi River and Minneapolis

Rinse, repeat. Monday at noon, Linda drove me to the Parker Road DART light-rail station, first leg of a 12-day journey to Umeå, Sweden, Sri Lanka, and Chennai (formerly Madras), India. I was pumped. And with plenty of time, I decided to take public transit to DFW, rather than parking my car for the near-fortnight. The first ride was splendid, reading The New York Times on my iPhone, marveling at how much one can learn in 30 minutes (high point: an interview with a neurobiologist probing music and the mind). I had plenty of time before the Trinity Railway Express train to the station closest DFW, so ambled into the old Dallas Union Station, reading the Amtrak train board and the lure of destinations southwest and northeast – Austin and Tucson, Texarkana, St. Louis and Chicago.

The rides from home to airport took four times longer than the car, and average speed dropped further (to 3.8 mph) after a long flight delay – nine hours after leaving home I was still at DFW. Along the way, a nice T-t-S moment with Neil, a security manager for BP, heading back to Poole, Dorset, after two weeks in the oil-spill crisis center in Mobile, Alabama. An interesting fellow, from the British Marines and Chevron, then the last nine years with BP in Azerbaijan and a home posting. The spill is a true disaster, but there was no need to demonize BP people, like so many U.S. journalists are doing. As I have said many times since the gushing started, every one of us who drives a car, flies on a plane, or turns the thermostat up or down has some responsibility, too.

We arrived London more than four hours late. I missed my SAS flight at 10:35, and was a bit stressed when I approached their check-in desk, because my discount-fare ticket did not allow changes. But never underestimate the power of a smile and effusive courtesy. In no time Yvonne waved her hand and a boarding pass was printed for the 1:50 flight to Stockholm. Hooray! Through security, I walked briskly for the Admirals Club. Connecting to my e-mail, I spotted a reply from a former AA colleague in London. I sent Don a note 11 hours earlier, before leaving DFW, asking if he had any rebooking sway with SAS, given that he worked for AA in Stockholm for years, and found a wife there. I chuckled, reading his short message: “Rob, I am sorry to say that my SAS guy is unable to do anything. Apparently there’s a 600EUR (US$730) difference in the ticket prices and they won’t waive.” God and Scandinavian Airlines were smiling upon me. After takeoff, I celebrated with a Mariestads beer, at $5.11 cheaper than on American.

We arrived Stockholm at 5:15 on a brilliantly clear day. I collected my bag and ambled across the airport to the domestic terminal, where a smile and plea for mercy worked once again. The check-in agent initially said “sorry, you’ll have to see my colleagues in the ticket office,” then relented. “I’ll just check you in.” Big smile, effusive thanks, a little engagement about my many visits to Sweden, marriage to a Swedish-American, the whole shebang. As I walked away, I uttered a loud “woo hoo,” and she laughed. As I walked on, I imagined the hoops and hassle of a similar transaction in the U.S.

I ambled across the terminal to the Radisson Blu Hotel, and sat down in the lobby. Greg Michaels, a fellow member of the International Advisory Board at the Umeå Business School, spotted me, and called my name. It was startling. He and I were on the same flight in a few hours, so we repaired to the dining room. I had a plate of cold salted salmon, potatoes, and a beer, a very Swedish repast, together with a good yak. We landed in Umeå at 10:15 PM, in nearly-full daylight. Greg, Marian Geldner, another board member from the Warsaw School of Economics, and I got a taxi to the hotel. A long day. Happily, I slept hard.

Thursday morning after breakfast, I walked a few blocks east to the Umeå Institute of Design, part of the university.

Earl Pineda

They were having their annual conference and student exhibition, and, serendipitously, the student presentations began at 9:30. I took a seat and soon Earl Pineda, a young American, took the podium. A former scientist at Amgen, he was in the Master’s design program, explaining his project on mobile breast cancer detection in developing countries. The design process has long been fascinating to me, and Earl’s presentation was no exception. Next up was Jaan Selg from Sweden, a Bachelor’s candidate, explaining his design for bulk-food packaging for the U.N.’s World Food Program. Then was Boram Yoo from South Korea, Master’s candidate in transportation studies, explaining her design for a woman-friendly auto – that one was a little subjective and New Age-like. Paola from Mexico explained a new diabetes management tool, and Mikael from Norway discussed his social communication tool for seniors – “why can’t I sent Grandma a facebook message, and get a reply?” I then walked upstairs to see the student exhibits. Impressive stuff: a design for a kid-friendly hypodermic needle, a flipper-like swimming aid for lower-leg amputees, and more. The models and mock-ups showed the best of the Swedish way: functional + aesthetic. Way cool.

Kid-friendly hypodermic needles -- a nice idea

Swimming aid for lower-leg amputees

Hiked up the hill to the university, and into the business school. Not surprisingly, after 15 visits it felt so familiar, more so in all the old friends I met in 20 or 30 minutes, folks like Pelle Nilsson, Helena Renstrom, and Håkan Boter.

Wall decoration immediately above my head, conference room, Umeå Business School

And I was delighted to reconnect with A. a Master’s student from Iran who I met last October (and described in a previous posting). We yakked a bit about his thesis, and I asked if his parents were okay, because eight months earlier he told me his father, a professor, had gotten crosswise with the regime after the June 2009 protests. “Yes, they’re all fine. My dad can’t teach anymore, he’s been suspended,” he said, matter of factly. Aieeeeeeeeee!

At 12:15, I presented a seminar on career and life to about 35 students, hosted by the business school’s new career director, Rickard Lindbergh. Then it was into an all-afternoon meeting of the school’s International Advisory Board. As in previous sessions, we were able to add clarity and direction to some challenges the school faces. We ate an early dinner at school, and I took off down the hill into town on the dean’s bicycle (earlier in the day, before even shaking my hand, he handed me the key to the bike lock!).

I quickly changed into shorts and sneakers, and in no time was pedaling along the Ume River on the Sverigeleden, one of the national bike paths. It was a lovely ride until, 6 miles out, it began to pour. I was sopped by the time I got home. To warm up, I headed to the hotel sauna, but it was broken. Worked my e-mail to zero and ambled over to Lotta’s Krog (pub) for a nice, $8.43 glass of white beer from the Gotland Brewery. Unlike my previous visit to Lotta’s, there were no friendly strangers to talk to at the bar, and as sometimes happens abroad, a brief but steep wave of loneliness washed over me. Fortunately, my family – pictures at least – are on my iPhone, so I scrolled through several dozen and instantly felt closer to home. Without anyone to yak with, I opened the Kindle e-Book app on my phone and began reading chapter two of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third and last of the trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. It was cool to read a Swedish novel in situ.

Bike trail on Bölesholmarna, in the Ume River

I was up early the next morning to clear blue sky and a stiff breeze. Rode across the river through the suburb called Teg, and onto my favorite Swedish island (in the river), Bölesholmarna. Circled the island three times (about five miles), and headed back to the hotel. Rode up the hill to the university in time for a 9:00 meeting and another day of deliberation. Finished at 4:30, rode down to the hotel, changed into shorts, and did a quick seven miles along the river, south and east toward the Gulf of Bothnia. Weather was still great, but really windy. We had a group dinner, fun and good discussion, and I clocked out early.

Downtown Umeå, 3:10 a.m.

Early to bed, early to rise . . . Woke again in the middle of the night. At 3:00, the sun had already been up 30 minutes, and I decided to do the morning bike ride early, so I set off along the river, upstream to the Stornorrfors hydroelectric plant, passing beavers, ducks, cattle, sheep, and a very speedy deer. It was chilly, perhaps 42°F. In town, there were quite a few people up and about in the middle of the night-that-was-day, and even a few rural folk out for a walk at 3:30 or 4:00. I rode about 23 miles, and went back to bed.

Splendid riverside condos, 3:15 a.m.

Flew to Stockholm at 11:25. That day’s proof of a truly small world: the mother of a Swedish student friend, Peter Gabrielson (I met him in 2006 at Stockholm School of Economics) was a deadheading flight attendant. Peter had sent me advance notice, so when I sat down in seat 10D Majvor was in 10E. It was not exactly Talking to Strangers, but it was close! Maya, as she is known, was a delightful person, flying for SAS since 1967. We yakked about the airline “disease” (we both had serious cases), about her favorite U.S. city, Chicago, about the upcoming Swedish royal wedding (the heir apparent is marrying Daniel, a regular middle-class fellow), and more. It was wonderful to spend time with another airline veteran. At Stockholm Arlanda I gave her a hug and kiss – she felt like a longtime pal. I ambled across the airport and at security fell into a conversation with strangers, a family of four from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, next door to my hometown of Edina. Wonderful.

I did not quite have enough time to take the speedy (20 minutes) train into Stockholm, so I exchanged kroner for Euros and went to the gate to read for a couple of hours. Flew to London at 3:20, to start some big adventure in Sri Lanka and South India.

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